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How Smoke Fish

How to Properly Smoke Fish

Dry Brine Methods:

I learned this from Ray Vodapesp of Seattle who fishes off our dock with friends each summer. He specializes in smoking salmon, especially the very oily belly strips and tips (the pectoral fin area), but it works with fillets, too. Ray spends a lot of time in Sitka each summer and when a fresh batch of his fish comes out of the smoker, all work on our dock grinds to a halt and the eating begins.

You’ll Need:

  • 8 parts sugar (I use Sugar in the Raw, but granulated sugar or brown sugar are fine too)
  • 7 parts non-iodized (kosher) salt
  • 1 part granulated garlic
  • Large plastic tub (never use metal for this)

Metal pan readied with paper towel liner to receive fish after brining and rinsing.


Before serving, place the fish on a dish and let it come to room temperature. It will have more flavor that way. I store mine on a dish at room temperature for days and it only seems to get better. Again, not covered, not wrapped – open air and allowed to breathe.


Store the finished product in the refrigerator but DO NOT cover it or bag it in plastic. The fish needs to breath and set up in open air. It will get better and better the longer it sits – within reason. I like the collars after at least a week in the refrigerator uncovered.


Heat honey in the microwave until it’s watery then paint an ultra-thin layer onto the fish. This gives a nice glazed finish and a hint of sweetness.


Nearly finished coming out of the smoker.


The fish is done when it’s a nice darker brown as pictured.


My smoker’s hottest shelf is on the bottom. Next hottest is on the top. I put the thickest pieces on the bottom, next thickest on top, then scatter smller pieces in the middle shelves.


We use a Luhr Jensen Big Chief smoker. They are inexpensive, last forever, and do as good a job (in my opinion) as any of the more sophisticated and expensive smokers I’ve owned. The wood chips come from Luhr Jensen and I’m unable to taste a different between types of wood used in the chips. Cherry, apple, mesquite – it all comes out as smoke to my unsophisticated pallet. I do use the insulating jacket if it’s cold out. On warm summer days, it’s not needed.


As the fish sits at room temperature it should form a glossy sheen. With fresh caught fish, this is pretty obvious. With previously frozen fish, less obvious.


Pat the fish dry with a paper towel. Allow to sit at room temperature for at least an hour, preferably closer to two hours.


Thoroughly rinse brine off under cold water.


Brine ingredients: non-iodized salt, sugar, granulated garlic


Leave thicker filets in for roughly 2.5 to 3 hours. The collars come out after 1.5 to 2 hours. You’ll have to experiment a little to suit your taste. The thicker the pieces the longer you brine. Also, different species of salmon have different rates of uptake of salt. Coho should be brined less time than equal size pieces of king salmon.


Thoroughly cover the fish with the dry brine.


Removed membrane (left) and the readied collar (right). Discard the membrane.


Skin the inner layer membrane off the collars. You’ll need a sharp knife and some knowledge of skinning a fish.


For collars (pectoral fin area) trim the fin so they fit better in the brine and smoker.


Cut filets into your preferred portions


Rinse filets well and dry thoroughly.


In a plastic tub mix 8 parts sugar, 7 parts non-iodized (kosher) salt, 1 part granulated garlic.


Measuring the brine formula: use a measuring cup or kitchen scale.


Fish, properly vacuum sealed and frozen, thawed slowly over a 24 hour period in the refrigerator.


The Brining:

  1. Mix the salt, garlic, and sugar in a large plastic tub. I use about 2 pounds of mixture to make a large batch of brine. Make sure you mix it all thoroughly and evenly.
  2. Next, rinse and dry your fish filets, and cut them into your preferred portion sizes.
  3. Place the filets skin down in the mixture in an even layer and cover completely with brine.
  4. Depending on the size of your container and how many filets you’re working with, continue to add filets to the tub in layers, covering the flesh of the fish completely in brine with each layer.
  5. Brine bellies and tips for about three hours, and thicker filets for four hours.
  6. Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
  7. Once their brine time is up, remove the fish from the brine and rinse thoroughly underwater to remove all of the brine.
  8. Next, pat dry the fish with a paper towel and place skin side down on the paper towel-lined baking sheet.
  9. Let the fish sit in the open air for one to two hours. It will start to form a glossy sheen.
  10. Time to smoke the fish! I use a simple and relatively inexpensive Luhr Jensen “Little Chief” or “Big Chief”. I’ve experimented with more exotic and expensive units, but always come back to the chiefs. If it’s really cold or windy out, you can wrap the smoker in Luhr Jensen insulation. I don’t put insulation on my smoker unless it’s below 25 degrees outside and windy. Slow heat is better.
  11. It takes anywhere from 6 to 12 hours to finish the fish depending on the size of the load and the outside temperature. I’ve use the Luhr Jensen wood chips and make sure there is pretty constant smoke during the first three or four hours. After that, I add smoke chips every couple of hours.
  12. The fish may finish at different times. The lowest shelf on the smoker is closest to the heat source, so I put the thickest pieces there. They often finish first. Check for a deep almost mahogany color and press on the fish to make sure it has cooked through. As always, don’t overcook your salmon. This really isn’t a problem with bellies and tips which have so much oil they are hard to dry out. Filets, you want to barely cook through – just a wee bit of rouge in the middle, slightly darker than the look of cooked salmon, is ideal.
  13. After you take the fish out, while it’s still warm, heat some honey in a bowl in the microwave (to make it watery thin) and paint a thin layer over your fish. The end result is habit-forming.

Final note – never store smoked fish in plastic bags or plastic containers – it ruins it. The fish must breathe. Store it on an uncovered plate in the refrigerator. In the open air of a frost-free refrigerator, your smoked fish will set up nicely. The longer it sits in the refrigerator, the better it gets, and it lasts forever. Smoked fish will taste best if you let it sit at room temperature for at least two hours before serving.

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